The First of the Wheat Ships
The time is an hour or so after sunrise on the fifteenth of May in the year 50 of our era; the place is one of the piers of the Emperor Claudius's new harbour at Ostia. Two men, whose dress and features show them plainly enough to be Jews, are watching the ship which is slowly moving shoreward under a press of sail.
"Your eyes are better than mine, Raphael," says the elder of the two to his companion. "Can you make her out?"
"Scarcely yet, father," replied the young man. He had scarcely spoken, however, when the passing of a cloud let a brilliant ray of sunshine fall on the vessel's bow. "There, there," cried Raphael ben Manasseh—this was the young man's name—"I can distinguish The Twin Brothers."
"Accursed idols!" growled Manasseh, spitting on the ground as he spoke.
Raphael shrugged his shoulders, casting at the same time an apprehensive glance around him.
"Don't you think, father," he said in a deprecatory voice, "that it might make a little awkwardness, if any people happened to be near? And if we charter these people's ships, might we not put up with their ways?"
"Well, well, you youngsters are all for compromise and peace. I often wish that I was well away from this land of abomination. Dear Hebron! I can't think what made me leave thee."
"Business very slack there, I take it," murmured Raphael. "I doubt whether one could find a hundred shekels in the whole place? But see, sir," he went on, "they are lowering a boat; a good thing too, or we might be loitering here till noon."
While father and son are waiting, with what patience they can summon, the arrival of the boat, we may explain the situation. The ship, which bears the name and sign of The Twin Brothers, to become famous afterwards for carrying a very distinguished passenger, was the first of the great fleet of wheat ships which would be making the passage between Alexandria and Ostia during the navigating season of the year. Their arrival was an event of no little importance. For some months past there had been much speculation in Rome and elsewhere in what are now called "futures" in the slang of the corn market. Even in these days, when the system of communication is so complete, the estimates of a crop that has yet to be gathered in differ not a little. Interested parties are influenced more than they know by their hopes and fears. Sellers talk gloomily, buyers are correspondingly sanguine. This year the prospects were more than usually uncertain. The Nile of the previous season had been indifferent, but certainly significant of scarcity rather than plenty. The weather, too, during the harvest had been less consistently fine than usual. Altogether the chances were greatly in favour of an increased price, and the Jewish corn merchants at Rome, who combined in a way that gave them a great advantage over their Gentile rivals, had acted accordingly. Manasseh, who was the wealthiest member of the syndicate, and had a predominant interest in its speculations, had journeyed to Ostia to get the earliest information. In spite of his sentimental recollections of his peaceful birthplace, he was a very keen man of business. Nothing, one may be sure, would have been a more unwelcome change than to leave his highly speculative business in Rome to take up again the cultivation of his ancestral acres, cherished as the thought of them was in what may be termed a different compartment of his soul.
The boat had now reached the pier. It carried two men in the stern. One of them who held the rudder lines was the captain, who was also a part owner. He was a thick-set man of middle age, a Corsican by birth, who might have sat for the portrait of one of the brigands of his native island. Just then, however, he was on his best behaviour. Manasseh was his very good friend and partner, who had lent him the money at the quite moderate interest of ten percent to enable him to take up a share in The Twin Brothers. He stood up in the stern and respectfully saluted the great man on the shore, a politeness which the Jew returned with as much courtesy as he could bring himself to show to a heathen dog. The other passenger, who was no less a person than the supercargo, climbed up the steps of the pier. Manasseh and Raphael greeted him warmly; he was, in fact, a near kinsman, a nephew of the elder and cousin of the younger man. His name was Eleazar.
"Welcome, nephew," said Manasseh. "You have had a good voyage, that I can tell from your having come in such excellent time. And you are well—to that your blooming looks bear witness. And you bring good news?"
"That, my dear uncle, depends upon how you take them," replied Eleazar, "but—"
And he looked round on the little crowd which had by this time gathered on the pier. Then as now a very little incident sufficed to bring a crowd together at the seaside. This particular occasion, too, as some of the bystanders were aware, was one of special importance. The seafaring men had recognised The Twin Brothers, and knew that she was the first comer of the wheat ships, and they had also a shrewd idea that a meagre time might be at hand.
"You are quite right, my dear Eleazar," said the old man, interpreting correctly his nephew's look; "this is too public a place for discussing business. We can find a convenient room at the inn, if you know our countryman Jonah's place by the Old Harbour. I daresay that you could drink a cup of wine. For my part I never could fancy either food or drink on board a ship. Everything seems to me to taste of bilge water."
"Thanks, uncle," said Eleazar, "I am too used to the sea to feel quite like that; still, I do vastly enjoy my first bite and sup when I get on shore."
The party soon reached the tavern, a building with a humble exterior, which, in accordance with the universal Jewish custom, belied the comfort, not to say the luxury, of the interior.
"What do you say to a flask of Lebanon?"
Raphael made a wry face. "My dear father, Lebanon, when one can get Falernian or Formian!"
"Would you drink these Gentile abominations?" growled the old man.
"Surely, sir, there is nothing in the law that forbids it."
Manasseh could hardly say that there was, and Raphael was served with his flask of Falernian, his cousin admiring his courage, but caring little for the matter in dispute.
"And now to business," said Manasseh. "How about the wheat, Eleazar?"
"A very short harvest, and poor in quality."
As he spoke he drew out of his pocket a little sample bag such as dealers carry now, and have doubtless carried from time immemorial, and poured out the contents upon the table. Manasseh and Raphael carefully examined the grain. They were not long in coming to a conclusion.
"As poor a sample as I have ever seen," remarked the younger man.
"Well," said the father, "I can hardly go so far as that. I can remember a long time, you see; but it is very poor. And this, you say, is a fair sample."
"Yes," replied Eleazar, "quite a fair sample; some of the grain from Upper Egypt is better, but then some is worse—that, for instance, from the Moeris country, where the canals were not more than half filled."
"And the price?" asked the older man.
"Well," said the other, "the price is a very serious matter. It is pretty high now; but no one can say what it will rise to. Let me tell you what I have done. Early last month I bought a million medimni, to be delivered before the end of May, at a hundred and twenty-five sesterces the medimnus. I felt that so far I could not be wrong. Well, I could have sold the wheat the day before I started at one hundred and sixty, and I haven't the least doubt in the world that it will go much higher."
Manasseh and his son looked very grave. They had hoped for a rise and, as has been seen, stood to win considerably by it; the supercargo's bargain meant a gain of at least £250,000—but there might easily be too much of a good thing. The State had a way of interfering when prices rose above all bearing, and private interest went to the walls. And nowhere was this more likely to happen than at Rome.
"You have done quite right," said Manasseh after a pause; "and I should not have complained if you had bought five times the quantity. But I must confess that I don't like the prospect. The Treasury is in a very poor way. This fine new harbour has cost an enormous sum of money; so have the drainage works and the aqueducts and the markets. And then for every pound honestly spent another pound has been stolen. Those two scoundrels of freedmen, Pallas and Narcissus, must have at least two million apiece. These are the lions, and there are whole herds of jackals and wolves that are fed to the full. Every farthing comes out of the Treasury. Now what I want to know is this—how is the corn that is given away every week to be paid for? We are under contract to supply a hundred thousand bushels every month. We have guarded against a rise in price, but not against such a rise as this. The Treasury won't—in fact, it can't—pay the price that we ought to ask. I see trouble ahead."
It is needless to repeat the subsequent conversation. The practical conclusion arrived at was to buy up all the wheat that could be got, before the impending scarcity became a matter of public knowledge. There would have to be large concessions in the way of prices; but this would hurt them the less, the stronger they could make their position or holding. It was arranged that Eleazar should enjoy the hospitality of his uncle's house as long as he remained in Italy. The Twin Brothers would discharge her cargo with all possible speed, and return to Alexandria, with a cargo, if this could be found at a short notice, but in any case without delay, and the supercargo would return with her. His acquaintance with the conditions of the Alexandria wheat market made his presence indispensable, especially at so critical a time.